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Israel Encourages French Jews to Emigrate - 2002-01-13

The Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has accused France of having the worst record of anti-Semitism in the West. But the French government and some prominent French Jews disagree with the allegations. Mr. Sharon's government is trying to encourage French Jews to resettle in Israel.

Just more than a year ago, unknown vandals torched the neighborhood synagogue of Trappes, a small town outside of Paris. But the Jewish community rallied, and they raised funds from as far afield as Los Angeles to rebuild their house of worship. And in December, they obtained a new hall, free of charge, from the mayor of Trappes.

But Michel Mimouni, head of Trappes' tiny Jewish community, says many Jews live in fear of future assaults. Last month, Mr. Mimouni's 35-year-old son decided to emigrate to Israel. Now, Mr. Mimouni says, he is considering following.

Mr. Mimouni's decision would be welcomed by the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which hopes to draw a million or more Jews to Israel in the coming years.

This month, Israeli officials announced new financial incentives for French Jews to repatriate. The lump sums - nearly $10,000 for a family of four - are part of a special, so-called absorption package, to ease the financial burden of moving to Israel. Only Jews from Russia and, more recently Argentina have been eligible for the special assistance. But this year, newcomers from France and South Africa were added to the list.

Sharpening the incentives were charges by Israel's deputy foreign minister, Michael Melchior, last week that France led Western nations in anti-Semitic aggression.

Dov Poder, the Paris representative for the Jewish Agency, which oversees immigration to Israel, says those accusations are separate from Israel's immigration drive. Nonetheless, he says, the new financial aid may offer fearful French Jews another reason to emigrate. "We understand that in France you have some problems," he explained. "A new form of anti-Semitism. We know that the decision and act to go to Israel and to try to live in Israel is a decision that is not so simple in a human point of view."

During the past 15 months, France has been shaken by a wave of attacks on Jewish schools, synagogues and shops. Many are blamed on disenfranchised, French-Arab youths from housing projects, who identify with the Palestinian cause. So a slice of the spiraling Middle East violence has been transplanted to France, home to some 600,000 Jews and to six million Muslims.

Accusations of anti-Semitism stir up painful memories in France, where the Vichy government collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II. But the recent Israeli charges of anti-Semitism have been adamantly denied by the French government, which claims the number of recent attacks against Jews is declining.

Some prominent Jews like Emmanuel Weintraub, a member of an umbrella group of French Jewish institutions (CRIF), also disagree that France is anti-Semitic. "It is ludicrous to say it is an anti-Semitic country," Mr. Weintraub said. "There are anti-Semitic acts. There is anti-Semitic violence in the air, coming always for the past 15 months from the same quarter, from young Arabs."

French police believe anti-Jewish feelings also sparked the attack on the Trappes synagogue in October 2000. Since then, a Roman Catholic priest has tried to establish a dialogue between the town's Jews and Muslims, many of whom are of North African origin. But Mr. Mimouni says he and other Jews in Trappes will have nothing to do with their Muslim neighbors.

Elsewhere in France, Jewish and Muslim leaders are working to cool the anger. That is the case in Marseilles, says the city's Muslim Grand Mufti, Soheib Bencheikh. In December, a Jewish school in Marseilles was set on fire. But Mr. Bencheikh says he worked closely with his Jewish counterparts to calm the situation.

Anti-racist groups agree that religious leaders and the French government are trying to reduce the violence. This March, for example, French school children will spend a week learning about the dangers of anti-Semitism.

But amid lingering tensions, Israel's Jewish Agency plans to launch a publicity campaign about the new immigration benefits. The agency's Mr. Poder says he has received about 100 calls from French Jews interested in moving to Israel. By emigrating, he says, they may find what he calls a "fuller" Jewish life.